Some corner of a foreign field. Irony. Rapture of the Deep.


For want of a nail…This is where Captain Cook came to grief. It seems that he refused to give any more nails to the native people. They took umbrage and killed him. There was a swordsman by his side, Molesworth Phillips, from Swords in County Dublin, a Royal Marine. Even Molesworth couldn’t save the great navigator. This small piece of Hawaii is British territory in perpetuity, in honour of the captain. Her Majesty could surely spare the man a flagpole and a flag. Maybe, of course,  the captain was trying to bring alien species into the island. They are very strict: ‘Are you carrying any snails or reptiles, Sir?’  Americans can use ‘Sir’ like a searchlight. ‘Step away from the car, Sir’ You know that you are nailed when you hear ‘Sir’. My brother in law was nabbed trying to bring Clonakilty black pudding to Florida. ‘Step away from the sausages, Sir.’  He’s not strictly my brother in law. There are no smugglers on my side of the family.

 Nails are precious things. I asked my neighbour, Milo if he had a couple of nails to spare. ‘Come into my nailery,’ he said expansively ‘and I’ll see what I can do.’ He had a drawer filled with dust and rusty nails. There were oval wire and round ones of many different sizes, straight and bent.  He had a little boat with a put-put outboard motor. It was held together by rusty nails. ‘Should you not use copper?’ I asked out of my ignorance. He looked at me pityingly, a landlubber, steeped in ignorance. ‘Nothing holds like a rusty nail.’  The nails made attractive, blue/grey patches on the wood. We went out to Saint Patrick’s Island , one summer evening. There was a big swell running. Put-put-put went the motor. Clang-clang-clang went my heartbeat. We lost sight of the horizon in every trough. We teetered on the crest of every wave. I looked longingly towards the distant land, the white flicker of surf and home, measuring the distance. I was the better swimmer.  Milo whistled, at ease in his natural element.

On another occasion we came around The Baily in a Fastnet 34. Fastnet! Get it? Hurricane? Major yachting disaster?  Simon le Bon’s keel snapping off?  The bolts sheered off under the force of the waves. Should have used rusty nails.  We were in a lumpy sea, with an easterly wind. I drew Milo’s attention to these coincidences, as the yacht dropped from a dizzying height, into a swirling abyss. ‘Huh,’ he muttered, intrigued and went below to put on the kettle. We were heading for a mark, with several other towering yachts converging on our course. I drew his attention to the situation. ‘Luffing rights,’ he remarked. Of course. Why didn’t I think of luffing rights?  ‘Luffing rights,’ he called to the rival skippers. They turned away.  It’s a phrase I keep in reserve for real emergencies.

Strangely for the Hawaiians, who had no concept of metallurgy, (hence the craving for nails) they host the Ironman World Championships every year.We went there to cheer on our son, Alan. He is a non-stop athlete. He did spectacularly well and continues to do so. No sign of rust there. We did the tourist things, like reef snorkeling at Captain Cook’s monument. When you put your head under the water, you could hear parrot fish, crunching at the coral. Apparently this is their sole source of food. Crrrunnnch-crrrunnnch  all day and all night, nibbling the island away. Fortunately the island is constantly re-built by the volcano. The Hawaiians were having a day off, when they named this island. It is the biggest of all the Hawaiian Islands. They called it Big Island. Our daughter once lived on Avenue Road in Acton.  Adam called flies flies because they…. Must try harder. 


The parrot fish are down there somewhere, crunching away. The reef falls away into vertiginous depths. They talk of rapture of the deep, but that is brought on by gas. There is a rapture brought on by the strange colours, the sense of weightlessness, the myriads of fish, the story of the people and their relationship with the ocean. History. I decided to swim over and pay my respects to Captain Cook and the Swords man. I clambered out onto the reef. A voice, magnified by a loud-hailer called out:  ‘Sir. You are forbidden to stand on the reef.’  It was the skipper of our ‘rib’ an intimidating young  American woman. I slithered back into the water like a hunted cousteau and merged with the other flotsam. I imagined that I could hear the parrot fish tut-tutting, the hypocrites.


I should have shouted ‘luffing rights.’  I could have pointed to the activities of the parrot fish. It was pointed out to me afterwards that, as a citizen of the European Union and pursuant to the Treaty of Rome, The Schengen Agreement, the Maastricht Treaty, the Single European Act, ratified by all the member nations, guaranteeing freedom of movement  et cetera and cetera, I am entitled, as an Irish and E.U. citizen, to enter Britain or any other E.U. country, without let or hindrance. I could have, but I wasn’t carrying any copies of the relevant treaties at the time. I was wearing Speedos, flippers and a face mask. If I had been carrying weighty copies of the treaties in my Speedos, I would have incurred even more suspicion from our imperious skipper.

In the Polynesian myths, the world stands on a pillar which stands on the back of a great turtle. It’s an analogy for islands that perch on top of pillars of volcanic rock. The coral grows only in the daylight near the top. The turtle moves from time to time. It’s a precarious world. I watched much of the race while perched on top of a plastic wheelie bin, with three or four other spectators. It was an excellent vantage point, until the lid began to soften in the heat and sag under our weight. I expected to be plunged ignominiously into the depths of the bin. I decided to get down. My right leg was dead from cramp. I fell to earth and hobbled around, trying to get back some circulation. It’s not funny but it makes you laugh all the same. Pins and needles. Like rapture of the deep only drier. Alan was doing fine. It was all bloody fine for him. He had trained for it; pumping iron, iron enriched food supplements or whatever.


Captain  Cook was dispatched with a wooden club or spear, probably ironwood. Milo’s boat was shattered on the beach in a sudden storm. The nails gave up the ghost. My neighbour lost one of his good shoes in attempting to rescue it. It is probably still bobbing around the Hebrides or’ the still-vexed Bermoothes,’ the shoe, not the boat. John Kingston’s legendary hardware shop had the world’s greatest nailery. You could buy one or a bucket full.   The shop exploded one night, in a most astonishing conflagration of paint, timber, gas cylinders, bitumen, roofing felt, oil, insecticides, fertilisers, wall-paper, glue, (even one called No-More-Nails), tools, nuts, bolts and anything you could think of. John had it all. It laid a heavy swag of smoke across the strand and all the way across the sea to the horizon and Saint Patrick’s Island, where Milo sailed his little boat.  He was a great mariner who would never refuse a person a nail or a favour.

Even without Saint Patrick, there are no snakes in Hawaii. No Sir.  I drive to Swords nowadays to buy nails.

When I nibble shortbread biscuits, I hear the parrot fish.

If the shoe fits


Beneath the polished flagstones of Saint Canice’s magnificent cathedral, in Kilkenny, there lie the bones of a humble shoemaker. He lies there amid the tombs and memorials of noble knights and ladies, soldiers and bishops, a humble cobbler, a cordwainer, a follower of Saint Hugh, the martyr. And why not?  It is likely that during his life, he brought more ease and happiness to people, than all the querulous bishops, preachers thundering from the pulpit, or bellicose knights clashing together on the field of battle. Saint Hugh was a shoemaker and early Christian martyr. He was, of course, hanged for his beliefs. His colleagues were forbidden to take his body from the gallows and over time, his bones fell to the ground. His fellow shoemakers gathered the bones and make implements out of them. Saint Hugh was venerated, ever afterwards, in their work.

I was a martyr myself, a martyr to sore feet and uncomfortable shoes. Everyone likes new shoes, the shine of polished leather and the authoritative rap of heels on floorboards—until you realise that the left one is pinching, just a little bit, over the instep. The right one rubs at the back of the heel. A bad buy. It will take time. I loved to walk home barefoot from the beach in summer. As far as Balbriggan Street corner with its high kerb anyway. I always managed to stub  a toe there.  In later life  I went to Mr. Guilfoyle, the shoemaker. He lived near Gallows Green in Kilkenny. It has a less ominous name nowadays. He was known to make sandals for the Capuchins, an order distinguished for their piety and charity. I wanted to walk a mile or two in their shoes. By a special dispensation from the Pope, he made a pair for me. They were good for the sole. My life was transformed. I felt goodwill towards all.  A circular bald spot began to emerge on the top of my head, a sure sign of sanctity. Margaret said that they looked dreadful, but I forgave her. She relented on the understanding that I would not wear them with socks. Why would I wear socks?  Elephants flap their ears to cool the blood. Sandal-wearers wear sandals to maintain a flow of cool blood, from the extremities to the  brain. “It’s all about footwear.” (Cliff Claven. Cheers)  “All the great civilisations wore sandals.” (Ibid.)


I took Alan to an orthopaedic specialist to see about his feet. He turned his toes in, to the extent that it became a problem. He was tripping himself up. The specialist was in FitzWilliam Street, as were they all. That was before all the 199 year leases ran out on the old Georgian houses and the ESB made a dog’ dinner of the streetscape with their Stalinist block of offices. It was in the days when we paid doctors in guineas. ‘Walk him over to the door,’ said the consultant. ‘Now walk him back. Hmm.’  He wrote out a prescription. Take this up to my shoemaker’, (he wrote a name,) ‘in the Coombe and he will put a lift on his shoes. Twenty guineas, please.’ He wrote a receipt. It all took about five minutes. I did as directed. I had to carry the child some of the way. We had a nice trip, in every sense of the word. We came home on the train and walked across the field where our new house stood. The field had been dug up for drains and new roads. We walked through a blizzard of thistledown. The prescription worked. It was worth every guinea. He ran and kicked footballs and climbed walls, until the shoes were in flitters. It became necessary to get new shoes and of course, new lifts. I couldn’t face the journey to Dublin. It made sense to bring the prescription to Mattie Grimley, son of Tommie Grimley, in Barrack Lane, (Little Strand Street). Mattie came from a shoemaking family. My father-in-law always spoke about how he would sit in Tommie’s workshop after work and chat. He spoke very highly of Tommie Grimley.

I explained the situation to Mattie.

‘Lifts? Aye. Three eighths of an inch.’

‘Doctor Brady said a quarter of an inch. It’s in the prescription.’


‘Doctor Brady of FitzWilliam Square. He’s a leading orthopaedic consultant.’ (Did you ever hear of a reasonably good consultant or a downright menace of a consultant? Christian Barnard, the leading heart transplant consultant, in fairness the first of his kind, recommended making love to lots of young women and drinking lots of red wine, for a healthy heart. Sounds good in theory but he died not long afterwards. I digress.)

Mattie peered at the letter. ‘Never heard of him. I always do three eighths.’

I had paid twenty guineas for that letter.  He handed the paper back to me. He gave a non-committal grunt. I contemplated going back to Doctor Brady and tackling him about the measurement. Mattie Grimley’s brother was a bishop, after all.

Mattie did the job. He charged me seven shillings and sixpence. I was not qualified to question his workmanship. It worked.

Fergus introduced triathlon into the family. He awakened a sleeping dragon. Alan became attracted to the sport. The house filled with lycra, running shoes and bikes. He doesn’t break in new shoes. He breaks in his feet to fit them. It’s an endurance sport. The two other brothers, Tom and Justin were drawn into swimming. Justin has progressed to Ironman. Alison is no mean cyclist. Sarah has dipped her toes in the triathlon waters.

We went to Hawaii to support Alan in the World Championships and (incidentally?) to attend his wedding to Eimear. He did well on both counts.

A group of young Americans cheered on their friend, Brad with that alarming enthusiasm of the athletic Christian. ‘Great stuff, Brad. Jesus is with you.’  (Jesus, a sandal wearer.) I have never quite understood why Jesus favours one athlete over another or one army over another. Why is he in the corner for one boxer and not equally for another? I suppose all fights, matches and races would end in a draw. All wars would end in a draw.Why bother? Brads are little nails used by shoemakers.


Alan is now an experienced ironman, going from strength to strength. The bloody fellow came third in the world in his age group. He has just announced that he is going to coach others to follow in his footsteps. I think I’ll stick with the sandals.

Mattie Grimley must have known a thing or two.

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